CUSTOMS IMPEDE WOMEN'S OPPORTUNITIES IN BELIZE, DESPITE LEGAL PROTECTION, WOMEN'S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE TOLD19990614
Belize Presents Initial and Second Periodic Reports; Committee Questions Role of Church, High Rates of HIV/AIDS
Women in Belize were protected from discrimination by the State's highest law, yet customs, traditions and culture impeded access to resources and opportunities, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this morning.
The Committee, which monitors implementation of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, was considering Belize's initial and second periodic reports.
Introducing the combined reports, Dolores Balderamos Garcia, Minister of Human Development, Women and Youth, said women and men share legal responsibility to protect their children, but in practice, economic burdens, emigration and customs placed the greater responsibilities on women. All segments of society must be involved to narrow gender gaps in law and practice.
Continuing, she said the church was very influential in terms of gender attitudes. Belize operated a church-State education system, and women were the majority of church members. Policies and norms -- especially those related to family planning and protection from HIV/AIDS -- reflected church- State agreement.
Under that church-State system of education, schools were free to expel girls due to pregnancy, Adele Catzim, Resource Development Coordinator and technical advisor, told the Committee. Pregnancy was a major reason that girls left school. At the same time, a boy could also be expelled, if known to have impregnated a girl, but that rarely happened. The Government had no explicit policy on the matter, but recognized the need for one, involving a more humane approach.
Belize's First Lady and President of the National Women's Commission, Joan Musa, said her country had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS transmission inWomen's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 1a - Press Release WOM/1134 432nd Meeting (AM) 14 June 1999
Central America, with more women infected than men. While the Government had put together an AIDS Task Force, which, together with non-governmental organizations, was implementing awareness and prevention programmes, there were two major constraints: the Church's reluctance to allow the Government and non-governmental organizations to teach HIV/AIDS prevention techniques in schools; and the lack of adequate systems to counsel and treat people with HIV/AIDS.
After the presentations, Committee members expressed serious concern about Belize's high rates of abortion, HIV infection, prostitution and teenage pregnancy. While most of the population practiced Catholicism, a high number of children were being born to single women, they noted. There was perhaps conflict between religious practices and beliefs, on the one hand, and the realities, on the other. Did the political will exist to address such issues as safe sex and family planning, given the relationship between church and State? an expert asked.
Eliminating stereotypes would be difficult until there was a separation of church and State, an expert said. It was clear that cultural traditions were very strong and placed women in a subordinate position in Belize, another added. Both men and women had to be involved in changing old cultural traditions.
Laws on prostitution reflected an outdated perspective, one expert said. Street prostitution was penalized, but that had no relevance to Belize's reality, in which there was sex tourism, a high rate of HIV infection and some evidence of trafficking. In fact, those realities presented an early warning of sorts, indicating the need for an interventionist, rather than regulatory, approach.
From Belize's delegation, Magali Marin, Legal Advisor, and Gayla Fuller, Coordinator of the Women's Issues Network, also addressed the Committee.
The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to continue its consideration of Belize's report.
Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 2 - Press Release WOM/1134 432nd Meeting (AM) 14 June 1999
Committee Work Programme
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin considering the combined initial and second periodic reports of Belize (document CEDAW/C/BLZ/1-2), submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. That article provides for States parties to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention, which Belize signed in March 1990. (For background on the current session, see Press Release WOM/1125 of 4 June.)
The report, which was submitted in November 1996, provides a summary of current constitutional, legislative and administrative measures taken in Belize, and the programmes established since the ratification of the Convention. It draws information from several written sources, knowledgeable informants, and on the findings and recommendations of the country document prepared for the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), as well as on the legal assessment undertaken by the governmental body responsible for overseeing compliance with the Convention.
Belize achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1981, states the report. Its population, according to a 1991 census report, was approximately 200,000 persons. During the past decade, refugees from neighbouring countries have migrated to Belize. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are about 29,000 immigrants in the country, constituting about 14 per cent of the total population. The UNHCR also reports that about 20 per cent of refugees are single female-headed households. Sixty-four per cent of the population is under 25 years of age, of whom 44 per cent is under 15 years.
Common-law marriages are prevalent in this predominantly Christian country, as are the "visiting" relationships found in other parts of the Caribbean, the report states. The majority of children are born out of wedlock (59 per cent in 1990), which does not necessarily mean being born into an unstable union. The largest group in multi-ethnic Belize is the Mestizo (Spanish/Amerindian), at 43.6 per cent, followed by the Creole (European- African descent) population, at 29.8 per cent. Other groups include the Garinagu (Black Caribs), Mayan Indians, Mennonites (German-speaking Anabaptists), East Indians, Chinese and the Lebanese.
According to the report, Belize has a relatively stable economy, whose main exports include sugar, citrus and bananas. During the period from 1985 to 1989, structural adjustment measures led the economy to maximize its gross national product (GNP), which resulted in a growth rate of 10.9 per cent over the 1987-1990 period. However, that achievement was not reflected in the social sector. The failure of the "trickle-down" approach to development produced imbalances in income distribution, employment opportunities, investment in public services, and the provision of incentives to community enterprises.
By the time the Convention was signed, the Government engaged in a series of acts that placed emphasis on integrating women into the development process, states the report. The Government's Development Plan for the 1990 to 1994 period acknowledged the threefold roles of women as producers, reproducers and community managers. It stressed the need for social sector programmes to achieve real social equity, with particular attention directed towards women and youth, and the special needs of women in the areas of health, skills training, legal protection and employment conditions.
The report goes on to say that women's rights started to be addressed quite recently, despite the fact that women were active in expressing their interests as far back as in the 1950 to 1960 period, during the nation's impetus to acquire independence. Moreover, the legacy of welfarism common to Caribbean countries retarded legal and structural interest in implementing the Convention. The legal and social basis for implementing the Convention is the Belize National Constitution. The institutions and/or authorities responsible for compliance with the principle of the equality of men and women are all sectors and social institutions under the domain of the Constitution. Men and women in Belize attained the right to vote in 1954.
The Department of Women's Affairs and the National Women's Commission are among the key government agencies promoting the advancement of women in Belize, according to the report. While the Constitution guarantees equality between men and women and defines discrimination, there are no acts that specifically define discrimination against women.
In education, the report states that young women secure just over half of the available places in secondary schools, by virtue of selection based on academic merit. Women continue to be underrepresented in employment, especially skilled and professional positions more likely to deliver income equality. To date, the Government has not considered the need for affirmative action provisions to give better effect to that article of the Convention, especially for achieving improved gender equality in the labour force.
The laws of Belize regard prostitution as a "petty offence" and there is no direct legislation that specifically prohibits trafficking in prostitution or the exploitation of prostitutes, according to the report. Among the factors that account for the commerce of women are the growing tourism industry, the long-standing British military presence, and the large number of labour immigrants and refugees, coupled with a shortage of labour opportunities.
Regarding participation in high-level decision-making positions, the report states that Belizean women are far behind. Women's underrepresentation in key areas of decision-making is widely observed in public administration, civil service and private enterprise. Traditional gender role practices and the seclusion of women in the domestic sphere discourage and inhibit women from engaging in activities that would allow them to reach decision-making structures. Political parties do not provide opportunities for women to advance political careers, and there are no stimuli for running in elections.
Belize has a Church-State system of education, states the report, by which primary schools are administered by different denominations. Some of the reasons cited for withdrawal from primary education are the need to work at an early age or to care for younger siblings. At the secondary level, reasons are more likely related to behavioural factors. Teenage pregnancy accounts for a sizeable number of female dropouts. Young women might be expelled because of pregnancy, or be denied the opportunity to resume their education following childbirth. Also, unmarried teachers may be fired due to pregnancy, and there is no legislation prohibiting the firing of pregnant teachers.
The report states that country is upgrading its public health system to be more accessible, more preventative and more comprehensive for women than simply a focus on maternal and child-health services. While there is conditional legal provision for the termination of pregnancies, actual access is highly restricted. Of approximately 700 terminations from 1992 to 1996 (an estimated 20 per cent of an estimated 3,500 abortions), only one seems to have been legally approved. Abortion has not been identified as a cause of maternal death, although it is a main cause of hospitalization.
Introduction of Report
DOLORES BALDERAMOS GARCIA, Minister of Human Development, Women and Youth of Belize, said her country's report was the result of governmental and non-governmental efforts. Such collaboration also existed in programme development and implementation. Belize gained independence from Great Britain in 1981. Its population of 237,000 was experiencing an urban shift and was characterized by great ethnic diversity. That multi-ethnic reality impacted on laws and policies to end discrimination against women.
In 1996, 61.3 per cent of the population was below age 25, she continued. Approximately 19 per cent of children were born to teenage mothers, and 59 per cent of children were born out of wedlock. The multi- ethnic society reflected a wide range of accepted gender relationships, and policies, and laws were being developed to be effective in those cultural settings.
With an export-based economy, Belize was increasingly vulnerable under the new global economic system, she said. It had been experiencing an economic downturn affecting poverty and employment. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in 1996, 23.5 per cent of households were poor and 9.6 per cent extremely poor. The major actors in Belize's development included the non-governmental organization (NGO) community, the business sector and religious bodies, The Church's role in influencing gender attitudes was notable, since Belize operated a Church-State education system and women were the majority of Church members. Policies and norms -- especially those related to family planning and protection from HIV/AIDS -- reflected Church-State agreement.
Protection against discrimination based on sex was well enshrined in the Constitution, she said. While the highest law of the land prohibited discrimination, women were still largely unable to access resources and opportunities available to men. That was primarily the result of cultural practices, traditions and customs. In some cases, those practices, traditions and customs were the result of the absence of affirmative laws and special measures sensitive to the needs of women, rather than present laws and policies which were, for the most part, non-discriminatory.
Affirmative action for women in decision-making positions was a policy of the present Government, which had set a target of at least 30 per cent of top positions in public service for women. Debate was ongoing on whether to use affirmative action to increase the number of women in the Cabinet. A political reform commission would make recommendations on Belize's Constitution and other political bodies. While there were instances of affirmative action, such as a micro-credit project stipulating that 50 per cent of its loans must go to women, national laws and policies on affirmative action, or quotas, did not exist.
Regarding domestic and family violence, she said a national family violence plan was being developed through the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). Local domestic violence subcommittees and support groups were being formed in two of the country's six districts and counselling rooms for victims were being established in police stations. A National Strategic Plan on Gender Equity and Equality had been developed to focus on family violence, employment, health, decision-making and poverty.
Laws on sexual harassment, domestic violence, families and children, and child abuse sought to sanction against traditional patterns of behaviour, she said. An act allowing spouses to charge marital rape would be presented to the House of Representatives next week. Parenting training programmes and educational sessions on the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child were being conducted. Primary school texts had been revised in 1991 to reflect gender neutrality in parenting and home duties.
ADELE CATZIM, Resource Development Coordinator, said Belize's laws prohibited persons from operating brothels and penalized prostitution as a petty offence. Most prostitutes in Belize were immigrants -- either labour immigrants from Central America or the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, or refugees from Central America. Prostitution was often a higher paying job than other publicly endorsed jobs, such as domestic work or work in the garment industry. It was difficult to prosecute crimes relating to prostitution because the court system was overwhelmed with other kinds of crimes. However, there was growing concern about the level of prostitution in Belize, in part because Belize had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS transmission in Central America.
Turning then to political participation, she said women made up 52 per cent of all registered voters, but their representation at the parliamentary and local governmental levels was not proportionate with their numbers. Of 58 municipal seats, 50 were occupied by men; in the House of Representatives, only two of the 29 members were women. The number of female candidates had been increasing slowly, but most ethnic groups still viewed women as unable to engage in the "dirty business" of politics. There were very few women diplomats, partly due to the fact that women were not considered assertive enough to represent the country.
Regarding education, she said that, over the past 10 years, women had begun to vigorously pursue further education. For children under 14, the enrolment rate for boys was 70.1 per cent, and for girls, 67.2 per cent. Implementation of a truancy programme had revealed that failure to attend school was often the result of social and financial factors, and in some cases related to sexual abuse. This year, the Government had imposed a law penalizing persons who failed to report the sexual abuse of children.
After primary school, students were tested to determine their acceptance in secondary school, she said. Girls outperformed boys in that test, but males performed better at math and science overall. Girls made the transition from primary to secondary school at a rate of 90 per cent, compared to 78.8 per cent for boys. However, there were regional disparities in that regard, and rural areas tended to show a reverse pattern.
At the tertiary level, more female students were enroling in tertiary- level schools like community colleges and universities, she said. Presently, at the local university, University College of Belize, 65 per cent of the students enroled were female. However, that rate must be examined in the context of the possibility that the enrolment rate for Belizean males at foreign universities might be higher, as parents were more willing to send their male children abroad to study.
Pregnancy was a major cause of girls discontinuing their education, and opportunities available for continuing education did not cater adequately to the demand for such services, she said. Under the Church-State system of education, individual schools were free to expel girls from school due to pregnancy. Boys, if they were known to have impregnated a girl, could also be expelled. However, boys were usually never dismissed. The Ministry of Education had no explicit policy on the matter. Only a few secondary schools allowed females to continue their education after pregnancy. The issue was part of ongoing discussion and debate. The Government had recognized there needed to be a more humane approach to dealing with the entire issue of teenage pregnancy and that a national policy needed to be developed in that regard.
GAYLA FULLER, Coordinator of the Women's Issues Network of Belize (WIN- Belize), said that, on the surface, Belize had no expressed discriminatory labour laws against women, but did have discriminatory attitudes towards women in relation to employment. Female participation in the labour force was 40 per cent, which was significantly less than their male counterparts, who participated at a rate of 78 per cent. The female labour force was more educated than men, but that had not translated into higher wages for women. Women's average income was still less than that of the men. Further, labour statistics revealed that women suffered twice the unemployment rate of men -- 21 per cent for females and 10.6 per cent for males. Also, since 1993, women had been withdrawing from the formal economy. That might be partly due to the fact that they were denied equitable opportunities in the labour force.
Even though more educated, women were still concentrated in the lower- paying jobs compared to their male counterparts with equal education levels, she continued. Women still tended to be concentrated in "pink colour jobs", so to speak, than in the higher-paying jobs, in technical fields. Belize had several minimum wage regulations which allowed for varying minimum wages based on the type of job. In 1992, the Belize Organization for Women and Development (BOWAND) had launched a minimum wage campaign. They raised awareness about the need for one minimum wage regardless of the type of job. They also called for the minimum wage to be indexed annually, based on the cost of living. Neither recommendation had been adapted, but the present administration had, in its manifesto, agreed to review the existing minimum wage regulations.
In addition, NGOs were developing a campaign on women and employment, she added. That campaign would include advocating for gender sensitized policies and programmes on training and credit for women. It would also review and make recommendations on labour laws, wages and social security and work benefits for women. Further, NGOs continued to promote the policy that the minimum wage for traditionally female-dominated jobs should be the same for male-dominated jobs, to achieve equal pay for equal work.
Women had a right to maternity benefits, she said, and could not be fired or dismissed during the maternity leave. Schools operating under the Church- State system were allowed to fire unwed mothers if they became pregnant before they reached the stage of qualifying for maternity leave.
In 1996, Belize enacted a Sexual Harassment Act to protect women in the workforce, institutions and accommodations from sexual harassment, she said. The present Government was seeking to review the legislation, to make it easier for women to prosecute sexual harassment.
JOAN MUSA, President of the National Women's Commission and First Lady of Belize, said that women had more access to health care than men, and approximately 95 per cent of pregnant women received prenatal care, she said. Teenage pregnancy was high. In 1998, 23 per cent of "everborns" were born to women under 19. Reported abortions were also on the rise. Abortion was illegal, but women still obtained abortions, either at home with traditional midwives, through their private gynaecologists, or across the border in Mexico.
She said that Belize had the highest transmission rate of HIV/AIDS in Central America, and more women were reported to have the virus than men. However, that might be due to the fact that women were tested far more than men, since women were tested during their prenatal and post-natal check-ups. To address the situation, the Government had put together an AIDS Task Force, which, together with NGOs, was seeking to implement HIV/AIDS-awareness and prevention programmes.
However, two major constraints existed, she continued. First, the Church's reluctance to allow the Government and NGOs to teach HIV/AIDS- prevention techniques in schools, even at the tertiary level. The second constraint was the lack of adequate systems to counsel and treat people with HIV/AIDS.
Most loans offered by financial institutions were still inaccessible to women, not because of any outright discriminatory policy, but because women were far more unlikely than men to have collateral like land titles, to provide a financial institutions as security for loans. Most landholdings were still owned by men. There were two micro-credit institutions that targeted women specifically. There was a need for more education and training for women who wished to access loans. Many women, especially rural women, did not have access to loans because they did not understand how the loan system worked or even where to get them.
A gender review of primary school textbooks was conducted in 1996, she said. As a result, gender-biased illustrations and narratives on physical activities were changed to reflect gender neutrality.
With regard to rural women, she said that there was a paucity of gender data on rural women. Generally, rural women were likely to have higher fertility rates than urban women, and were likely to be less educated than their urban counterparts. Their participation in the labour force was also less than that of urban women.
The Government was presently in the process of adopting a Village Councils Act, she said. That Act aimed to increase formal local autonomy in a range of areas of local government and community participation. Specific provision was included in the Act to target rural women's concerns, and women had been highly involved in developing the Act and in lobbying for it to be passed. However, to a large extent, rural women were invisible in the national planning process. They were only now becoming organized,but their organizations tended to focus on income-generating activities to the exclusion of self-development sessions.
MAGALI MARIN, Legal Advise, said that Belize had a Domestic Violence Act, whereby a spouse (including a de facto spouse) could apply for a protection order prohibiting the other spouse from coming near the premises, and from communicating with her in any form. Husbands had enjoyed a marital exemption from being prosecuted by their wives for rape, but the Government was presently drafting and would present an act to remove that marital exemption by the end of June.
Women could apply for maintenance for their children, whether those children were born within or outside of wedlock, she said. The primary duty for maintenance was on the father, but if he failed to do so, the mother had to take the responsibility. Whereas a wife could claim maintenance for herself, a de facto spouse could not. A significant percentage of the population were part of consensual or common law unions. Upon break-up of the union, the de facto spouse could only claim maintenance for children of the union and not for herself. Also, in a common law union, only the children could be successors to their father's property. That put a lot of women in common law unions, and their children, in a financially disadvantaged position.
In concluding comments, Ms. GARCIA said that, although both women and men were, by law, required to have the same responsibilities to protect their children, in practice economic burdens, emigration and customs placed the greater responsibilities on women. Those three areas needed to be addressed by all segments of society to narrow gender gaps in family laws and practices. Gender equality must be further promoted in the areas of sexual harassment, access to continuing education for young mothers, equal pay for work of equal value, gender-neutral teaching materials, and health services for women.
She said that even in areas where adequate provisions existed, attention was required to ensure greater compliance, through more consistent enforcement of laws and regulations, as well as through public-awareness campaigns and education. That applied to such areas as fuller implementation of domestic violence legislation, improved access to health services, regulation of brothels, and sexual offences, including against minors.
Experts Questions and Comments
An expert expressed serious concern about Belize's high rates of abortion, HIV infection, prostitution and teenage pregnancy. While most of the population practised Catholicism, a high number of children were being born to single women. There was perhaps conflict between religious practices and beliefs, on the one hand, and the realities, on the other. Did the political will exist to address such issues as family life education, including safe sex and family planning, bearing in mind the relationship between Church and State? she asked.
On schools, she said that the Government carried the financial burden, yet it did not have say in the rules, which sometimes contravened the Constitution itself. She wondered whether unmarried male teachers who became parents were dismissed.
She said she was concerned about the lack of information on violence against women and children. The age of consent was 16 years old, yet 19 per cent of births were to young mothers. Those youth were penalized several times over; they had to deal with statutory rape and becoming pregnant, and were then prohibited from continuing their education. She asked what Belize was doing to implement its commitments under the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women.
Another expert said she was generally concerned about the Church-State relationship. The State was secular, yet in various sectors of society, such secularism was not evident. The Church exerted great influence, yet the rate of teenage pregnancy was very high, despite the fact that the majority of the population was Roman Catholic. There was ambiguity there that should be explained.
She noted that the country's economic growth, the result of a structural adjustment programme, had exacerbated polarities. She wondered what the present Government, which was very progressive, was doing to mitigate the negative impact of the structural adjustment, especially to women and to rural people.
An expert stated that the Committee was still very concerned about teenage pregnancy, which was an issue of education and health, and the criminalization of abortion, which was the cause of a great number of deaths. The State had to find measures which would put an end to such violations of women's rights. She hoped that adequate measures would be taken soon in Belize. Seeing the First Lady here today was an encouraging sign that something would be done soon.
Turning to article 2, an expert said that eliminating discrimination through legal and administrative measures was an obligation that had to be met by all State parties. She wanted to know whether there had been any review of existing laws for discriminatory provisions against women. Also, was the Government planning to formulate a specific sex discrimination act that would cover all areas of women's lives? Being a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society, she encouraged Belize to consider formulating racial and ethnic anti-
discrimination acts, and requested more information on such kinds of discrimination.
She also wanted more information on Belize's national strategic plan on gender equity, as to targets within individual areas, connected with time- frames, and how much financial resources were allocated towards its implementation. Further explanation was also requested on the Commonwealth Gender Management System and its implications for Belize, if and when the country joined that system. Would joining that system require additional assistance from the Commonwealth system? she asked.
Although the Constitution of Belize embodied equality, an expert said that the report did state that in there were no laws which specifically defined discrimination. Despite the information presented, women seemed to be at a disadvantage in the economic, political, social and cultural life of the country. She wanted to know how far the Convention had been disseminated, and what training had been done based on its contents. What awareness did women in Belize have of their rights under the Convention? she asked.
She also wanted more information on women who emigrated to Belize from neighbouring countries. They made up 14 per cent of the population, and the report had stated that they faced discrimination in various areas.
An expert asked about national machinery coordinating efforts being undertaken to promote rights. What were the source and level of funding? Often, even with a Ministry for Women in existence, raising funds was a problem. It took funds to implement the Convention. Enlisting non- governmental organizations in the effort to raise money could be helpful.
Was there a national policy of promoting women's rights? she asked. Often, plans were drawn up without conceptualizing a policy that took into account all the problems of women, as well as the capacities of government and non-governmental organizations. Were women's non-governmental organizations participating in the preparation of national plans and programmes? Even if a national policy existed, it was crucial to have the objectives quantified. Progress depended on evaluation.
An expert referred to the issue of temporary special measures, under the Convention's article 4. She commended the fact that there was a special quota for disabled women. The present Government had a number of policies for affirmative action, but no national laws on quotas. Why was that so? she asked. Was there opposition from a section of the population or other political parties? In particular, special measures were needed in the area of education, especially for teenage mothers who had to interrupt their education due to pregnancy. Measures were needed to facilitate their re-entry into the educational system.
An expert said that the largest political party's policy to appoint women to various bodies and committees was important. It increased women's visibility -- leading in turn to their broader participation -- established them as role models, and could increase the number of future women appointees. However, a policy could be abolished with political change, while a law would remain.
Affirmative action laws did not have to place obligations on both public and private sectors, she continued. Rather, it could start with the Government itself. Also, it was possible to have gender-neutral affirmative action laws. For example, a law could provide that at least 40 per cent of both sexes should be represented in any body or committee appointed in public service at the local and national levels. That was gender neutral, yet it would obviously help women.
One expert was pleased to hear that Belize was entering into the Commonwealth Gender Management System, which when implemented would help to mainstream gender equality. She was aware of the existing potential for change and bringing about an awareness of women's issues and gender issues. She wanted to know if there were any programmes aimed at changing awareness and dealing with gender stereotyping. What were those programmes and had there been monitoring or evaluation to assess their impact? she asked. Also, was the church involved in the programmes, or was it considered part of the audience, and was the media included?
An expert was pleased to see the initiatives taken by the Government with relation to domestic violence. A positive step was the family violence plan begun by the Government, since it was quite clear from the information presented that family violence was a serious problem. Every State had realized that family violence was one of the greatest scourges affecting women, and required an integrated plan to reduce the levels of violence in the community. Such a plan required research, and amendments to criminal laws, so that physical violence, including sexual violence and psychological and emotional abuse, was criminalized. Victims must be protected under the civil laws. She wanted to know whether protection orders were firmly enforced by the courts.
Education was also critical, she went on to say. Only recently had violence been regarded as a particularly serious matter by the Government. Education was vital for the police, judiciary and health professionals. Teachers could also play an important part. An integrated policy was needed, which treated family violence as a crime, and that required a police policy that insisted on the arrest of perpetrators. There also had to be programmes for the support and treatment of victims.
She added that it was encouraging to see that rape in marriage was to be criminalized soon in Belize. She wanted to know if the laws concerning sexual violence against women and children had incorporated the means to ensure that it was easier for women and children to give evidence in court.
Noting Belize's multi-racial and multi-ethnic society, an expert wanted to know how it would eliminate stereotypes, while taking into account the different customs, traditions and religions present in its society. Also, had the Government envisaged how it would change the relationship between the State and the church? she asked. The State was one thing and the church was another, but the State had the responsibility to maintain a policy to advance the status of women. Until that was done, she did not see how some stereotypes would be eliminated.
Another expert added that it had been made clear that cultural traditions were very strong and placed women in a subordinate position in the country. She wanted to know why men did not participate in programmes to eliminate stereotypes. When trying to change old cultural traditions, programmes had to work with women and men.
Turning to article 6, an expert was struck by the fact that prostitutes were subjected to prosecution, which could lead to a fine or imprisonment. She was concerned over the fact that it was considered a petty offence and that prostitutes could be prosecuted for simply being a prostitute. The reasons that women turned to prostitution had to be addressed. She wanted to know if there were programmes for the re-training of prostitutes -- to help them develop other ways of living.
She also noted that operators of brothels were seldom punished. There was no mention of the punishment for procurers, who organized and exploited prostitutes. In addition, what measures were undertaken in connection with the British military bases present in Belize? How were the problems due to their presence dealt with? Also, what was being done to eliminate children's prostitution?
An expert said the laws reflected an outdated approach to prostitution, penalizing street prostitution and were a carry-over from the view that prostitution threatened public morality when it was open and public. That had no relevance to Belize's reality, however, where there was sex tourism, a high rate of HIV infection and some evidence of trafficking. In fact, those realities presented an early warning of sorts, indicating the need for an interventionist, rather than regulatory, approach.
The report did not contain information on laws regarding trafficking in women, yet laws to punish prostitutes did exist, an expert noted. She hoped the Government would consider adopting legislation from the perspective of preventing trafficking in women and sexual exploitation. Another question regarding military bases had been mentioned already.
Turning then to the Convention's articles 7 and 8, on women's participation in political and public life, an expert said that Belize had had a woman governor for 12 years under British rule and, therefore, it was difficult to understand the very small presence of women in decision-making positions and in the Parliament. Women were voting and participating in campaigns. Did the national machinery intend to present to Parliament bills for affirmative action, as the majority party had, or bills that would allow minority sectors, such as the handicapped, to participate in decision-making bodies? she asked.
The national machinery could consider a strategy of organizing training sessions for women to enable them to have greater access to the slates of political parties, she added. Such training would also mean that women became visible and credible to society as a whole, which, the Committee was told, did not view women as appropriate for the "dirty business of politics".
An expert turned to article 10, on discrimination in education, asking about the role of the National Council of Education. What were its plans with respect to eliminating negative stereotypes, combatting discrimination and improving standards? she asked. The Council should amend the curricula and change stereotypes concerning women, enabling children to accept women in all spheres of life, including political activities. Further, she expected the Council to ensure balance between church and State regarding concepts concerning women and, in particular, the issues of reproductive health and pregnancy. It should also engage in some effort for preventing pregnancy.
According to the report, she continued, the State was endeavouring to educate children in schools with respect to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. She expected the same would be done with respect to the Women's Convention.
An expert expressed alarm that no policy, act or legislation governed the right of education for teenage mothers, particularly since the issues involved fell under both the Women's Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Was the issue being addressed at the moment, and would a policy be developed on the right of young mothers to education? she asked. Policies were in place in Jamaica, Grenada and St. Kitts to ensure that teen mothers returned to school in the normal school setting. They were not treated in any way differently than other young women. Belize might want to consider how those countries had developed their policies, especially since some of them shared Belize's concern regarding the church.
Regarding truancy, she noted that the report indicated that children withdrew from primary education, which was mandatory, for such reasons as the need to work or care for younger siblings. More information was needed. Also, she asked about the treatment of young men who became parents while in school. * *** *